Contradictions in the Middle East peace process

By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem writes about the growing contradiction within European, American, and Israeli decision-making since the West dropped its sanctions-regime against Hamas. In Salem‘s opinion, while some States favor gradual diplomacy to legitimate Hamas and establish a five-year ceasefire, others are seeking the negotiation of an immediate permanent status solution with Abu-Mazen. And as the complexity of the contradiction grows, one thing has become clear: Abu-Mazen‘s hope lies in a permanent peace agreement. Continuing partial agreements will only damage Abu-Mazen‘s Presidency, increase tension between Hamas and Fatah, and weaken the possibility for an eventual reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

WHILE VISITING PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT ABU-MAZEN IN RAMALLAH THIS DECEMBER, Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, made a recommendation: during talks on the increasingly difficult situation in the Middle East, Blair recommended that the Palestinians declare a hudna (stoppage of hostilities) in exchange for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. A few days later, Ahmed Yousef, Political Advisor to Prime Minister Ismael Hanniyyah, went public with the proposal.

Back home in Britain, it was Alaister Croak who first developed the initiative. And it is becoming increasingly unclear just how heavily Yousef’s eventual decision to go ahead with the plan for a five year hudna in conjunction with an Israeli pullout, was influenced by the British Government.

Although it took a while for them to choose, many European countries are finally beginning to lift the sanctions that they had imposed upon the Hamas-led Palestinian government. And as sanctions are being lifted, Europe has begun to place heavy importance on its Track II diplomacy, spurring informal dialogue with the Palestinian leadership in an attempt to resolve the ever-worsening conflict.

Two main assumptions prompted Europe’s change in policy: one, that Hamas was democratically elected by the Palestinian population and that their importance to eventual peace cannot be ignored; and two, that by engaging Hamas in dialogue on political issues, they can help President Abu-Mazen move forward in the peace process.

These two assumptions are similar but not the same. The first is an understanding that Hamas must become the alternative to the PLO, and the second, an assumption that Abu-Mazen and the PLO should still be in charge of the peace process. And while some European countries have moved forward in legitimating Hamas as the new democratically elected government of the Palestinian people, others (including Britain with Alistair Croak’s initiative, and the US with its three stage peace plan) have taken the initiative to aid Abu-Mazen in the peace process.

The initial plan to create a separate Palestinian state through unilateral realignment, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called it, has now been replaced by a plan based on cooperation and agreement. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tzipi Livni, recently reported that he would begin initiating the three-stage peace plan, in agreement with Abu-Mazen, beginning with the implementation of the Sharm Asheikh Sharon-Abu-Mazen Agreements of February of 2005, and moving forward to the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. And the Hamas approval of the joint Yousef-Croak initiative is also symbolic of this change in policy.

Yet, two questions remain troublesome in the Middle East. The first: will Abu-Mazen and Hamas react differently towards the Yousef-Croak initiative? And the second: how will the growing contradiction between European countries play itself out? Because like it or not, a contradiction does exist: while some European countries have been communicating directly with Abu-Mazen, others are attempting to gradually legitimate Hamas through Track II diplomacy. Will this contradiction move the peace process forward, or will it expedite its collapse by spurring internal competition between Hamas and Fatah?

Abu-Mazen himself is skeptical of the idea of a State with provisional borders out of fear that it becomes a final solution. Yet, he is ready to offer Israel two states that both recognize each other and live in peace and harmony. Hamas, on the other hand, is willing to accept a five year hudna with Israel in exchange for a partial withdrawal from the West Bank, yet their vision of the future of the small, hotly debated strip of land, is far from hopeful. Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel as a legitimate state, an essential step if peace is ever going to be established.

The complexity of the situation deepens with the addition of Israeli politics. Many in the Knesset, recognizing the difficulty of reaching a permanent status agreement with Abu-Mazen, are willing to settle for a temporary solution with Hamas. The partial hudna would give Israel time to seek a political solution to the conflict, and to recover from its torturous occupation of the West Bank. The same issues of refugees and the division of Jerusalem, that limited the peace accords at Camp David with Arafat, are hindering progress with Abu-Mazen; so for the time being, conflict management seems to be the favored option among Israeli politicians, not conflict resolution.

By forging an agreement with Hamas, however, Israel does run the risk of compacting with an organization that refuses to recognize its right to exist. The hope among many is that Hamas will come upon the same transformation as Fatah, recognizing Israel and becoming a stable source of leadership for the Palestinian people. Others, on the Left in Israeli politics, are pushing for a permanent agreement with Abu-Mazen, with the hopes that by achieving statehood and self-determination for his people, he will gain ground as a successful leader: such success, however, would come at the expense of Hamas.

In between the deliberation, a movement to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people was decided upon during the December 23rd meeting between Olmert and Abu-Mazen. Abu-Mazen rushed to the negotiating table with Olmert after he learned of Hamas’ joint Yousef-Croak initiative. In the President’s mind, Hamas has not been fulfilling its promises in upholding its end of negotiations, and rather than beginning yet another gradual process towards provisional borders, he is anxious to negotiate a final status immediately.

The meeting, however, turned out to be different than what he expected: talks on the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilaad Shalit’s freedom, a ceasefire in the West Bank and Gaza reliant upon a Palestinian cessation of hostilities, and the release of Palestinian tax revenue. None of these steps are permanent, complete solutions, and thus lie outside of Abu Mazen’s immediate control. Yet, there was one valid outcome of the meeting: the revival of work by the Egypt-US joint security committee to deploy Presidential Guard Units in Northern Gaza to prevent rocket attacks on Israel; special funds would be devoted to arming the Guard Units, as well as the deployment of the Bader Brigades of the Palestinian Liberation Army to provide reinforcement.

The trickiness of the situation lies in garnering the support and faith of the Palestinian people. With only partial agreements underway, Abu-Mazen will appear to his followers as if he has accomplished nothing. Yet, a ceasefire with Hamas will win the organization great esteem among the Palestinians, and prove that their strategy of resistance is effective in accomplishing results.

Abu-Mazen’s hope lies in a permanent status agreement. Partial solutions will only hurt his reputation, help Hamas, create greater tension and conflict between Fatah and Hamas, and damage the process of eventual reconciliation between the two peoples.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).